by Philip Price
Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson,” “It's Kind of a Funny Story”) “Mississippi Grind” is a story about an expert talker and a man who doesn't know when to stop. It's a film about the slums of gambling and the inescapable ditch you're constantly trying to crawl out of when you can't avoid the itch. In this regard, it's admirable in it's telling of certain personalities and it is perfectly in line stylistically with those it owes its inspiration to. Whether it be “The Gambler” or “California Split” there is a distinctive ‘70s-inspired feel to these proceedings. Boden and Fleck have made a partnership of exploring human psyches with crippling problems, but never have they seemed to commit to a genre so boldly. With this distinction in mind, Boden and Fleck take on this specific tone more than anything and more or less capture what they seem to be going for due mostly to two charismatic and emotionally compelling performances from Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds. The story is rather generic as “Mississippi Grind” quickly becomes a road movie about redemption these characters know will never be earned, but it is within this standard storytelling that the small, interesting caveats of character are born and are what continue to make the film as entertaining as it consistently is. Throughout the film Reynolds' Curtis comments on how it's not the destination, but the journey that matters most and that mantra stands true of the film as well. While this is a nice sentiment thus permitting the film to fall into certain clichés while hovering above average with its character development as well as the unexpected but engaging dynamic between the two leads. And yet, this oft repeated motto still doesn't allow the film, as a whole, to be anything more than an impressive experiment in nostalgia that succeeds in some areas and is only content in others. “Mississippi Grind” is a solid film, a movie of rhythms and textures, but it's nothing so compelling that it will stick with you.
We are introduced first to Gerry (Mendelsohn), a talented poker player whose habit is getting the best of him, as he sits in his car listening to a tape on poker tells. He meets younger player Curtis (Reynolds) at a casino he frequents in his home state of Iowa. Curtis is a player in the sense he can talk anyone into a distraction while displaying a confidence that is naturally appealing to the down on his luck Gerry. Gerry admits to not being able to pick up on Curtis' tell to which Curtis replies that it's because he doesn't play to win, but simply for the joy of playing. From here Gerry can sense something of a strange, but inherent kinship between the two of them. For the audience, it always feels as if Curtis has something up his sleeve, an ulterior motive of sorts, but for Gerry this is a moment of kismet; exactly what he needed at a time when he desperately needed something. After a night of drunken bonding and a day of betting on horse races that produces only better vibes between the two Gerry convinces Curtis to spot him enough money so that they might gamble their way towards a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans. This high-stakes tournament is put on by Curtis' friend, Tony Roundtree (James Toback), and Gerry more or less guarantees Curtis a win as long as Curtis sees him as a worthy investment. Curtis agrees and the two set off on a road trip through the South with visions of winning back what's been lost.
Again, like Curtis' headstone motto and his mentality about gambling itself, it is the journey that matters most and this road trip sets up the perfect way for the film to elicit what is necessary from our characters to make them both appealing and mysteriously engaging. It is being able to live in the midst of the moment and not think about the effects of your current actions or the end goal of a certain game, but Gerry simply doesn't operate this way and his nature allows for a cool juxtaposition to Curtis' free-wheeling take on life. It is during their journey that true motivations are revealed and genuine bonding ultimately takes place, but that shouldn't matter to you if the movie does its job-what should matter is the moments these two share. Every scene though, as much as it is meant to develop the relationship between these individuals, is also simultaneously working as a way to further develop the individual. Whereas it is easy for Curtis to place a bet and win or lose and walk away it is Gerry who can't stand to let the possibilities go thus forcing him to stay and try again; in short, he's addicted. As much as Gerry is a good poker player he is a horrible gambler and this trait gets the best of him which naturally brings out the worst in him. On the other side of things, Curtis is all too eager to constantly be moving. He says things like, "I like women too much to marry one," all while having a clear connection to Simone (Sienna Miller), a call girl at a casino, that he takes for granted when he leaves for extended periods of time. The women factor little into the film as far as actual characters go, but as with Simone and Curtis, both Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton) and Dorothy (Robin Weigert) are meant to highlight certain aspects of Gerry that better paint a full picture of who this man actually is.
And so, “Mississippi Grind” is essentially a character study of two personality types and how these opposite approaches deal with the same situation. It's an example of what makes certain people tick and while the film overall is something of a tepid excursion both Reynolds and Mendelsohn turn in exceptionally charming performances. Reynolds is a pro at portraying the smooth, fast-talker and while he delivers that same schtick here he seasons it with his older, more experienced age that he currently resides at which lends the role just enough vagueness to keep whatever hidden reasoning he might have for helping Gerry as point of intrigue. Mendelsohn, on the other hand, has the more guarded role of playing a certain facade to everyone around him while keeping everything that is going wrong in his life (which is a lot) tucked away on the inside. When Mendelsohn's Gerry cracks under the pressure it is heartbreaking not only because we know it's just another in a long line of misfortunes, but because we know it will only lead to another bet that will only dig his grave deeper. It is in these instances that we can't help but understand what the film is going for, not to mention much of the dialogue from Boden and Fleck is pretty outstanding, even if the film doesn't resonate as much as may expect. I liked “Mississippi Grind,” I would have no qualms with watching it again, especially given the blues-centered soundtrack of regional music that only further compliments the very specific atmosphere the film carries. I liked that the film focused more on the character dynamics for tension than any of the actual games being played and that it makes a stop in Little Rock that acknowledges the cities place in the South, but while Gerry and Curtis may find what they were looking for at the end of their rainbow I was hoping for a little more for the audience.